Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000155, Mon, 29 Nov 1993 13:05:53 -0800

VN & "Tokalosh"
=09The material below is a preliminary sketch. Your comments are
appreciated. =09=09=09The Editor


D. Barton Johnson

With the foundering of the Soviet juggernaut, bits and pieces of

Nabokoviana (and pseudo-Nabokoviana) keep floating to the surface.

Following the Bolshevik revolution and the ensuing diapora, a vigorous

Russian emigre press sprang up in the remotest outposts of the

emigration--from Harbin to Buenos Aires. Almost of these publications

withered away, but the newspapers and magazines often found their way

into libraries where they were preserved until excavated by recent

investigators. The Russian papers and journals from major Western

European centers have by now been rather thoroughly ransacked by

Nabokov scholars. The situation in the Eastern European states that

had come under Soviet domination after World War II was quite dif-

ferent. Collections of emigre publications such as those in Riga and

Prague became inaccessible, their fates unknown. With the demise of

the Soviet Union, the emigre holdings of Eastern European libraries

are now coming to light.

Last spring while browsing in the stacks of the UCSB library, I

ran across a four-volume bio-bibliography of Russian publications in

Latvia published in the Stanford Slavic Studies series [vol. 3:1-4]:

Iurii Abyzov, _Russkoe pechatnoe slovo v Latvii: 1917-1944gg_ (Stan-

ford, 1991). Edited by Lazar Fleishman and his Stanford colleagues,

Abyzov's monumental work even catalogues the signed contents of the

daily papers during Latvia's period of independence from the USSR.

Knowing that Nabokov had published a few early pieces in the emigre

Baltic press, I checked under his name to find a page and a half of

listings dating from 1922 through 1932, plus three 1943 entries. [The

unlikely story of three 1916 Nabokov poems published in Nazi-occupied

Latvia is related in my earlier NABOKV-L note "Nabokov Poetry in Lat-

via: 1943."] The listings included poems, stories, and book extracts

-- all, of course, credited to V. Sirin, Nabokov's Russian pen name.

Closer inspection revealed that almost all of this material was

reprinted from originals that had appeared in emigre papers in

Germany. Juliar's bibliography listed the German originals but often

did not contain the Baltic reprints. Some of the Baltic Nabokov was

new, however. Two items in particular caught my eye: "(V. Sirin).

_Brajtenshtreter -- Paolino_. Rasskaz. --Sl, 1925, No. 38-39"; and

"(V. Sirin). _Tokalosh_. Rasskaz --LRS, 1925, No. 234-236" (The list-

ings are on page 100 of Abyzov's third volume. The "Sl" of the first

lisiting refers to the Riga daily Russian newspaper _Slovo_ of 28-29

December 1925; the "LRS" of the second -- to _Libavskoe russkoe

slovo_, a daily paper published for Russians living in the Latvian

town of Liepaja.)

At best, if at all, it was going to take several months to get

copies, but I submitted ILL requests. Meanwhile I started querying

colleagues, mostly via NABOKV-L. Brian Boyd was able to identify the

"Brajtenshtreter -- Paolino" reference, although he was not aware of

any such publication. In late 1925 Nabokov had given a talk at the

Tatarinov-Aykhenvald literary circle in Berlin extolling a boxing bout

between the Basque Lumberman, Paolino Uscudun, and the German champion

Hans Breitenstr=84ter. See Boyd I, p. 257 for details. The Russian

scholar Boris Rivdin has located the essay and published it in the

Russian language periodical DAUGAVA (Riga) in issue #3 for 1993.

Nabokov opens with some comments on the role of play (and sport)

in human affairs (including art), and then provides a short survey of

boxing history and its champions, including those he has seen. As a

personal sidelight, he describes the not unpleasant experience of

being knocked out. The remainder centers on the Breitenstr=84ter-Paolino

fight which took place on 1 Dec. 1925 in Berlin. Apart from a very

few flashes, the whole is stylistically flat and reeks of what now

seems like adolescent machomania. Abyzov erred in calling the account

a "rasskaz" or "story."

The second item, "Tokalosh," proved both more elusive and more

interesting. "Tokalosh" was, indeed, a story. The great majority of

the young Nabokov's Baltic publications appeared in the newspapers

_Segodnia_ (Today) or _Slovo_ (The Word). The story "Tokalosh" was

one of only two Sirin items to appear in the _Libavskoe russkoe

slovo_, a small paper that chiefly reprinted material from the larger

emigre papers. The story is spread over three issues, those of 20-22

October, 1925. =20

"Tokalosh" is the very odd and faintly ridiculous name of the

hero. The story is set in the Caucasus or perhaps Russian Central Asia

in the early years of the century. The first person narrator, Vladimir

(Vol'ka, Volik, Volodya), looks back to his tenth year. His father has

just been appointed to a high-ranking position, apparently that of

provincial governor of a remote and dangerous border area. The father

one day receives a childishly penned letter from Tokalosh seeking a

post. The father and mother discuss the matter at the dinner table and

remind the boy of the morose, bearded older man who had once playfully

pulled his sled. Tokalosh is given an administrative post in a nearby

German settlement. He does well and during local disruptions occa-

sioned by the Russo-Japanese War distinguishes himself for his initia-

tive and courage. The father wants to promote him, but there is some

unspoken impediment. Three years pass and the narrator attends the

wedding of Tokalosh and his young ward, a penniless orphan, whom he

has had raised and educated in Kiev. She is visibly unhappy and the

boy, previously an admirer of Tokalosh, now has doubts about his hero.

Tokalosh is at last made a district chief where his incorruptible

honesty and wisdom in dealing with the diverse, antagonistic

inhabitants becomes legendary, as does his bravery in repulsing bandit

raids. An infrequent visitor at the governor's home, he remains a

taciturn, awkward figure who imbibes only to toast the health of his

two adored young sons, ages, two and three.

The young narrator is approaching graduation from his gymnasium

when news comes that Tokalosh has been killed by bandits. The widow

and her children come to stay with the narrator's family while his

father helps with her affairs, her pension, and so on. As she leaves,

she thinks to ask his advice about a document that her husband had

told her would provide her with money. The document proves to be an

insurance policy for 50,000 rubles. A month later the father comes to

his son's room and shows him the official investigative report that he

has ordered into Tokalosh's death. After surrounding the camp of the

notorious bandit, Dali Ali, Tokalosh had insisted on entering alone,

presumably in order to negotiate a surrender. Advancing without

hesitation into the pointed muzzle of his opponent, he had been shot

down. The report showed that Tokalosh had spent the preceding night in

prayer. Asked by his father his impression of the report, the narrator

replies that Tokalosh is a hero. His wiser father, pointing to the

insurance policy and Tokalosh's night of prayer, agrees that he was a

true hero--one who had committed suicide in order to assure the future

of his young wife and family. The father goes on to tell the boy how

many years before he had befriended Tokalosh, a simple, illiterate

peasant and exiled religious dissenter, who had become a village

elder. The father ends his tale: "Volodya, there may come a time when

your faith in our people will be sorely tested. Among the many others

they teach you about in your gymnasium, remember Tokalosh".

The plot and the cloying denouement do not sound much like

Nabokov. Nor did VN ever set a story in either that time frame or

locale. Further, the language is flat and clich=82-ridden. My suspicions

are further aroused by the signature "S. Sirin." The author's name

occurs only once--at the end of the third installment. Abyzov has

silently "corrected" it to "V. Sirin" in his bibliographical listing.

All of the dozen Baltic Nabokov pieces that I have seen are signed V.

or Vl. Sirin, and Nabokov is not known to have used the initial "S."

as part of his pseudonyms. Could there have been another Sirin, an

"S." Sirin, writing in the emigration? The Abyzov bibliography, which

lists all of V(l). Sirin's works under the entry "Nabokov", does not

yield any publications by an S. Sirin in the "S" alphabetical entries.

Nor is an S. Sirin is to be found either in Ludmila Foster's massive

bibliography of emigre literature or in Masanov's standard _Slovar'

psevnonimov russkix pisatelei_. Also against VN's authorship is that,

with the exception of the boxing essay, all of VN's Latvian pub-

lications of the twenties are reprints of known pieces that had first

appeared in Germany. Although the _Libavskoe russkoe slovo_, was a

small paper that ran heavily toward reprints, it so far appears to be

the only publisher of "Tokalosh." Where did they get the story?

Nabokov is not known to have had contacts with the paper. If the

_Libavskoe russkoe slovo_ had carried no other Nabokov material, I

would unhesitatingly write off "Tokalosh" as an improbable oddity, not

a story by VN. On the other hand, the _Libavskoe russkoe slovo_ did,

according to Abyzov, publish one known Nabokov story: "Zvonok" (The

Doorbell) which appeared in issues 126-129 for 1927. (Its original

publication had been in _Rul'_, No. 1969, 22 May 1927, p. 2-4 --

according to Juliar, who does not list the closely concurrent Latvian

publication.) I have not seen the "Baltic" "Zvonok" [Doorbell], so I

do not know how it was signed, i.e., S. or V. Sirin.

The insipid style of "Tokalosh," while weighing against VN's

authorship, is not incontrovertible evidence either way. The style of

the boxing essay which appeared a couple of months after "Tokalosh" is

also mundane, although in spots clearly Nabokov. In late 1925

Nabokov's prose style was just hitting its stride. "The Return of
Chorb" had been written in October just after the completion of the

first draft of _Mary_ and the stylistically stunning "A Guide to Ber-

lin" was done in December, the same month as the trite boxing essay.

Generally speaking, the earlier prose had been rather uneven. Only a

few of the stories, such as "Bachman" and "The Potato Elf" stand out

among the dozen or so VN had written in 1924 and 1925. Nabokov had

published one story, "The Sprite" (Nezhit') as early as 1921, and it

is easy to imagine that "Tokalosh" is a bit of juvenilia that

belatedly made its way to publication.

Another conceivable scenario is that "Tokalosh" is a pastiche--

half-Lermontov (Caucasus, military clashes with exotic bandits); half-

late Tolstoy (exaltation of the Russian peasant, Nature's own

nobleman.) If nothing else, the chosen narratorial point of view (the

boy's) does not lend itself to pastiche. Another remote variant of the

parody theory could be derived from the unusual name of the eponymous

hero, `Tokalosh,' which evokes the brand name of a pimple ointment--

Tokalon (guaranteed to improve your love life)--that was heavily

advertized in comic-strip format in the emigre press. VN's perverse

delight in commercial poshlost led him to compare the style of the new

(1934) emigre journal _Chisla- [Numbers] to the Tokalon face cream

ads. (My thanks to Brian Boyd for calling my attention to this. See

his letter in the _Times Literary Supplement_ of March 6, 1986 for a

reproduction of the ad.) One might suppose that VN wrote "Tokalosh"

as a literary equivalent of "Tokalon" in an obscure slap at the

nostalgic, nationalistic literary drivel that filled many emigre pub-

lications. This speculation hinges, inter alia, upon whether "Tokalon"

was being promoted in 1925, as it was in 1934.

To sum up. Nabokov was publishing in the Baltic emigre press at

the time of "Tokalosh" appeared and, subsequently, once, even in the

same small paper. The story is signed S. Sirin, an ambiguous bit of

evidence. On the other hand, the story does not sound like Nabokov who

was just coming into his own after a rather erratic start as a prose

stylist. The _S._ Sirin could have been an editorial error (it was a

first appearance in the paper), or it could be the name or pseudonym

of an unknown author. At this point, I think it remotely conceivable,

but most improbable, that "Tokalosh" is a rediscovered bit of

Nabokov's juvenilia, or, slightly more plausibly, a Nabokovian joke.

Perhaps further digging through emigre archives may provide the ans-



* I would like to thank several colleagues who contributed to this

piece in one way or another. Lazar Fleishman at Stanford, Maxim

Shrayer at Yale, Pekka Tammi at the University of Tampere in Finland,

Brian Boyd, University of Auckland, N.Z., Gene Barabtarlo, University

of Missouri, Columbia, and Michael Juliar.